Bakers Journal

The big fat dispute

August 28, 2014
By Julie Fitz-Gerald

Who knew that saturated fats could cause such a commotion? A recent
study published in the March issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, has
caused quite a stir in the media among scientists and nutrition experts.

Who knew that saturated fats could cause such a commotion? A recent study published in the March issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, has caused quite a stir in the media among scientists and nutrition experts.

While the scientific community continues to discover the truth on saturated fats, there has been a watchful industry eye on whether the desire among consumers to return to full-fat foods of the past is growing.


The meta-analysis included 45 observational studies and 27 randomized trials on coronary heart disease risks compiled from data of more than 600,000 people across Europe, North America and Asia.


The study’s researchers concluded that, “Current evidence does not clearly support guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.” This summation flies in the face of widely accepted nutritional guidelines that warn consumers to limit their saturated fat intake.

Almost immediately, the study was called into question with other scientists pointing out errors and omissions in the original report. Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, quickly responded in writing, warning that the study’s conclusions are misleading and should be disregarded.

“This paper is bound to cause confusion. A central issue is what replaces saturated fat if someone reduces the amount of saturated fat in their diet,” Willett wrote in a letter posted on the Annals of Internal Medicine website. If it is replaced with refined starch or sugar, which are the largest sources of calories in the U.S. diet, then the risk of heart disease remains the same. However, if saturated fat is replaced with polyunsaturated fat or monounsaturated fat in the form of olive oil, nuts and probably other plant oils, we have much evidence that risk will be reduced.”

Full-fat dairy foods like butter, yogurt, cheese and milk, as well as red meat and coconut oil, are known for being high in saturated fat, which has been shown to raise LDL cholesterol (also known as “bad” cholesterol),increasing one’s risk of cardiovascular disease. Or so we believed. The entire notion has become a contentious issue for scientists and diet experts who are now vigorously debating the science that backs up this school of thought.

While the scientific community continues to discover the truth on saturated fats, there has been a watchful industry eye on whether the desire among consumers to return to full-fat foods of the past is growing. The most obvious example is watching whether or not there will be a return to butter from margarine. Centuries-old ingredients may appeal to consumer desire for authenticity, tried and true recipes, and getting back to basics.

This desire has also fuelled the slow food movement that began in the 1980s and now involves thousands of projects spanning more than 160 countries. According to Slow Food’s website, the movement’s original aim was, “to defend regional traditions, good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slow pace of life.” With more than 100,000 members in communities across the globe, the organization is bringing the slow food philosophy to the forefront through events and activities they organize in their communities, educating on the benefits of family farming, local grass-fed meat, and traditional and raw milk cheese. Slow Food has been active in Canada for more than 10 years and has approximately 1,300 members from coast to coast.

Jennifer Sygo, registered dietitian and sports nutritionist at Cleveland Clinic Canada and author of Unmasking Superfoods, believes consumers are looking to slow things down in the kitchen and renew (or begin) an enjoyment of cooking and baking.

“It’s part of the slow food movement and I think that’s part of the return to butter too. It’s that emotional connection with the kitchen,” she explains. “You’re bringing your kids in and you’re baking with them instead of buying something that’s manufactured and packaged. There is something about this that goes back to what we need to be focusing on more: that notion of eating around the table, whole foods, local foods, pure ingredients, that sort of thing.”

This back-to-basics, whole food approach could be spawning a greater appreciation for foods like full-fat dairy products and grass-fed beef, despite their saturated fat content.

“It’s easy to label saturated fats as being “bad” and I think that’s not entirely accurate,” says Sygo. “The big missing link here is the convenience carbohydrates that have become so popular and convenience food in general… With synthetic foods, we want to believe we can re-synthesize what nature made.

“Well, we can’t. There are thousands of compounds and we barely understand how any of them interact together, but we know whatever that interaction is, it’s profound.

“So, cheese as an example, is something that contains the important vitamin D2. It’s been largely dismissed and underappreciated in the research, but it seems to actually protect your heart from heart disease while also strengthening your bones…The notion of whole foods and foods as medicine, I think we’ve really underappreciated it.”

Sally Fallon Morell, founding president of the Weston A. Price Foundation and author of Nourishing Traditions, believes saturated fat is a critical component in a healthy body. The Weston A. Price Foundation is a non-profit charity founded in 1999 to disseminate the research of nutritionist Dr. Weston Price. His studies of isolated non-industrialized people in the early 1900s found that humans can achieve perfect physical form and health for generations when they consume nutrient-dense whole foods and crucial fat-soluble activators found only in animal fats.

“Saturated fats from animals carry very important vitamins that we get from few other places in the diet,” says Fallon Morell.

“Saturated fats actually support the heart because they’re the fats with the most energy and they’re the most stable fats. The brain also needs saturated fats. At least 50 per cent of the brain has to be saturated for everything to work right. The cholesterol that saturated fats contain is absolutely critical for the digestive tract. We’ve gone the complete wrong direction by choosing industrial oils and industrial fats. We need to go back to the fats of our ancestors.”

When it comes to saturated fats, Sygo notes  polyunsaturated fats are clearly better for your heart than saturated fats, but when compared to carbohydrates, saturated fats win out in the health department.

“When you look at data comparing saturated fats to carbohydrates, especially carbohydrates that raise blood sugar quickly, it’s quite clear that if you have the choice, saturated fats are actually better for you than choosing junky carbohydrates,” she says.

“So if the choice was to use coconut oil or butter on something or to eat a piece of cheese, these are better options than a granola bar or can of pop. The granola bar and can of pop probably does more damage to your heart than the saturated fat does.

“If you’re doing a rank order list it would be polyunsaturated fats first and saturated fats in the middle, with refined carbohydrates being the worst for your heart.”

Fallon Morell points out another  benefit of saturated fats: They are extremely satisfying, helping people curb cravings and making it easier to say no to carb-laden junk food. “Saturated fats really stick with you,” she says.

Sygo says saturated fats have earned a place in our diets when used in moderation and as part of a balanced diet, noting that while they can increase LDL cholesterol if consumed in excess, there is actually a fraction of bad cholesterol that is beneficial to the body.

“There is a fraction of bad cholesterol that is worse for you and there’s a fraction of bad cholesterol that is better for you,” she notes. “One is called small, dense LDL and the other one is called large, fluffy LDL. Small, dense LDL is particularly harmful for your heart; it’s the stuff that really sticks to the arteries and triggers the early stages of cardiovascular disease. Large, fluffy LDL seems to be pretty benign; it doesn’t seem to do much at all. What seems to be the case is that saturated fats like coconut oil and possibly also butter raise the large, fluffy LDL. So in other words, you’re not actually raising the small, dense LDL that’s more damaging; that’s the stuff that refined carbohydrates tend to raise more so than the saturated fats.

Despite the data and the potentially growing movement for a return to whole – and, in some cases, full-fat – foods, many government entities, including Health Canada, continue to warn consumers to limit their intake of saturated fats.

It will require further scientific evidence for these groups to consider changing their position. For now, it’s a personal choice based on how you choose to view the subject.

Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance writer based in Uxbridge, Ont., and a regular contributor to Bakers Journal.

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